Bronner Named Maxwell C. Weiner Distinguished Professor at Missouri S&T

Dr. Simon J. Bronner, Distinguished Professor Emeritus of American Studies and Folklore at The Pennsylvania State University (Penn State) at Harrisburg, has been been named the Maxwell C. Weiner Distinguished Visiting Professor of Humanities at Missouri S&T for the upcoming academic year. The visiting professorship was established in 1999 by an estate gift.

Bronner will be collectively hosted between August 2018 and May 2019 by Missouri S&T’s three humanities departments: arts, languages, and philosophy; English and technical communication; and history and political science.

Over the academic year, Bronner will present two public lectures, lead a seminar on campus for early-career faculty in the humanities, and teach one semester-long undergraduate course. He will also be encouraged to participate in S&T’s newly founded Center for Science, Technology, and Society,, which brings together scholars from across campus to share ideas about the impact of science and technology upon society, culture and the environment.

Dr. Simon Bronner, S&T’s Maxwell C. Weiner Distinguished Visiting Professor of Humanities

Bronner is an American folklorist, ethnologist and historian. A connecting thread of his varied scholarship is on the issue of tradition, especially in relation to modernity, folk culture, and popular culture and creativity.

“The undergirding theme in my work is the interplay between tradition and modernization,” says Bronner.This inquiry is particularly appropriate for connecting the backgrounds of students from various majors across the university curriculum at Missouri S&T. I try to use scholarship to address timely public issues as demonstrated in several of my recent publications on the discourse of ‘traditional values’ and technology in relation to the rhetoric of progress in American society.”

Bronner’s major scholarly contributions have been in his authorship and editing of over 40 books and monographs on the the topics of material culture and folklife, consumer culture, ethnic studies, ritual and belief, masculinity studies, American roots music, animal-human relations (in practices such as hunting and gaming), and developmental psychology and culture across the life course. He edited the most comprehensive reference work in American folklife studies, Encyclopedia of American Folklife (2006), followed with the reference work Oxford Handbook of American Folklore and Folklife Studies for Oxford University Press (2018).

During his tenure at Penn State, where Bronner joined the faculty in 1981, he has chaired the American Studies Program, directed the doctoral program in American Studies, founded the Center for Holocaust and Jewish Studies and the Center for Pennsylvania Culture Studies and served as interim director for the School of Humanities. He also has coordinated graduate certificate programs in folklore and ethnography and heritage and museum practice. Most recently, he was scholar-in-residence at the Latvian Academy of Culture in Riga, Latvia, and a Fellow of the Lemelson Center for the Study of Invention and Innovation at the Smithsonian Institution.

Bronner holds a Ph.D. in American studies and folklore from Indiana University, a master of arts degree in American folk culture from the Cooperstown Graduate Programs of the State University of New York, and a bachelor of arts degree in political science from Binghamton University.

“We believe Dr. Bronner is an excellent fit for the Weiner Professorship, and his many diverse interests in American studies and culture will appeal to a wide audience on our campus,” says Dr. Kate Drowne, CSTS director, associate dean of academic affairs for the College of Arts, Sciences, and Business, and a professor of English. “Missouri S&T is delighted to have Dr. Bronner join us for this coming school year, and we look forward to welcoming him to the campus community.”

For more information, see

Pennsylvania Folklore Symposium, May 17-19, 2018

I will be speaking at the Pennsylvania Folklore Symposium, an ideal place to share interests and ideas with others concerned for folklore and folklife studies not only in Pennsylvania, but around the world.

View the preliminary program for the
Pennsylvania Folklore Symposium

Sponsored by the Pennsylvania Center for Folklore, Folk Art PA/Pennsylvania Council on the Arts,
and the Middle Atlantic Folklife Association.

Register online by March 15, 2018 to attend!
If you would like more information or are interested in having an event added to the program, contact the Center staff at
Thursday, May 17-Saturday, May 19, 2018

Pennsylvania State University, Harrisburg
The Pennsylvania Folklore Symposium will bring together academic and public sector folklorists and students from across the state and region in order to highlight the achievements and issues in the field of folklore, and open a discussion on how to better collaborate and coordinate between institutions and with artists, participants, and creators.


Registration fee includes most meals (see program for complete list of included meals). Affordable on-campus lodgings available.

Oxford Handbook Site Launched

The “landing site” for the Oxford Handbook of American Folklore and Folklife Studies has gone live today: Two chapters appear now as samples–Mieder on proverbs and De Caro on folktales–and more should be added in the coming weeks (21 of the 43 chapters are now in press).  In addition, chapters with the keyword of folklore and folklife can be searched at the Oxford Handbooks Online page of, which should be available to most of you through your institutional databases (usually under the database of Oxford Reference). The print volume with over 1000 pages will be out in 2019. I can also offer as a preview an open-access essay on “The Challenge of American Folklore to the Humanities” for your reading at

Streaming Video of “The Practice of Folklore,” Lecture at the University of Tartu, Estonia, November 13, 2017

On November 14, 2017,  I spoke to an “International Folkloristics” seminar at the University of Tartu, Estonia, on “The Practice of Folklore,” a preview of my forthcoming book with the same title.  It was videotaped and can be viewed here. The introduction is by Professor Jonathan Roper of the Department of Comparative Folklore; thanks also to Professor Ulo Valk for his invitation and hospitality.

Surveying American Folklore in Online Essay for Oxford Research Encyclopedia of Literature

The core matters of American folklore and folklife studies evident in the literature are on folk groups, bearers, contexts, and genres in face-to-face interaction, with attention to ever-relevant, qualitatively investigated questions of tradition, creativity, imagination, identity, performance, practice, art, and communication. New technology has bred broader field documentation and facilitated “computational folkloristics” with the analysis and mapping of huge amounts of coded material, or “big data.” Whether interpreting the traditions of “virtual” social networks or “real” gatherings, in futuristic corporate offices or around campfires of the past, and indeed among the young or old, folklorists in their scholarship seek answers as a significant contribution to the humanities and social sciences questions of how and why people express, and repeat, themselves.

To read more, visit



Eskin in the Field Smithsonian

cyrderville jail page from eskin notebook

Continuing the editing and annotation of folksongs collected by Sam Eskin (1898-1974) begun in volume 38 ( Spring/Fall 2012) of Midwestern Folklore, I present here in Part II [Midwestern Folklore, volume 39, Spring/Fall 2013]  a selection of songs with themes of love, violence, and eroticism that filled Eskin’s three notebooks of field-collected material. He put songs that he considered bawdy into a separate notebook and labeled it with a delta symbol used by the Library of Congress to represent risque items. Eskin collected most of these songs immediately after World War II. He quizzed returning soldiers and sailors about their song repertoire and transcribed a number of songs that show interaction with British troops and their bawdy ballad tradition. Concentrating on songs, he filed recitations and folk rhymes, many of them considered obscene at the time, in a separate file. Many of the bawdy songs are still in circulation in the twenty-first century, giving credence to his mission in his Folksong Alive project to show folk song to be a living tradition. Indeed, he predicted that the bawdy song tradition was likely to enjoy new life in college dormitories and fraternity houses as many of the veterans made the move to campus life. As my annotation shows, several of the songs had already been documented in college life before the 1940s when Eskin was doing his recording. Others such as “Bolo’d” and “Shoe and Her Ankle Too” have not been widely documented and have historical significance, especially since much of this material has been omitted, suppressed, or bowdlerized in previous collections (an example is a ribald version of “Our Goodman,” number 69). More so than for the notebooks filled with songs of love and violence, the delta notebook included Eskin’s recollections of texts from his pre-War days in the Merchant Marine, railroading, and ranching.
Eskin’s repertoire drew the attention of the leading scholar of erotica, G. Legman, who included in Roll Me in Your Arms (Randolph 1992, 332) some of the songs Eskin performed for him on a visit to his home in France during the summer of 1955. For Eskin, this folksong corpus came from a man’s world. The songs of love and violence were frequently the domain of women. He found many of his songs of love and violence in the labor camps of the West left over from the New Deal.


Among the performers from whom he recorded the most songs are Indiana -born Myrtle Downing (born Street) and “Uncle” Nate Dye, who apparently had experience working in lumber camps where he learned much of his repertoire. Neither one recorded commercially or went on the festival stage, but they had active roles in the labor camp community of perpetuating a ballad-singing tradition. Eskin’s recordings demonstrate that these tradition-bearers did not memorize set pieces as much as they remembered plots and extended their performances with floating verses. In contrast, Moon Mullican is an example of someone that Eskin recorded who had commercial success as a recording and performing artist, but Eskin documented folk songs in his repertoire such as “Girl I Left Behind Me” that had not made it into his discography. Mullican offered Eskin songs he fondly recalled learning from his parents in his Texas youth.
Eskin found Laura Bradshaw (born Petty) near Chapel Hill, North Carolina, and he documented her rich ballad repertoire. There was a sense in his recordings, though, that her performance of ballads of British origin represented a passing tradition. He took a  special interest, however, in her songs such as “Coal Black Hair” (no. 39 in this volume) that he thought had a regional vitality if not a national circulation or British origin. More than treating songs as specimens to be placed under glass, Eskin commented on the relation of singers to their songs. Myrtle Downing’s performance of “Forsaken” (no. 42 in this volume) affected him because of her history of being abandoned by lovers. He related to Harry “Haywire Mac” McClintock’s life of adventure and the songs he picked up along the way because he had similar experiences out at sea and on the rails. McClintock had recorded commercially but Eskin had an opportunity to get songs such as “Bolo’d” that would not be released.


Some songs attracted Eskin because of the stories behind them. “Pa Rattin” (no. 51 in this volume) for example, has violent imagery of a family being slaughtered and Eskin wondered if this was a murder ballad based upon true events. The singer did not know if it was, and the family name of “Rattin” was not a familiar one. I present research here that suggests that the song is indeed connected to the murder of a family named “Wratten” in Indiana in 1893. More research is needed on the emergence of the song after the horrific crime was committed but there is evidence of the song’s circulation in oral tradition through the twentieth century.  “Buttermilk Hill” (no. 38 in this volume) is one that fascinated Eskin because it was performed as a song about the West but he noted a lineage dating back to an Irish provenance.


Eskin frequently made notes singers’ sources for songs, and used the titles of songs they provided. In the case of “Grandpa Larson’s Song” (no. 45 in this volume), a song that I have identified as “When I Was Young and In My Prime,” retains the name of the source the singer recalled and a sign of the family folklore surrounding the song. In many cases, I filled in the information based upon historical and folkloristic sources. “Our Baby Died” (no. 68 in this volume) might seem out of place among Eskin’s songs, but I have located it within the context of the “cruel joke” series circulating during the 1950s that brought up issues of child abuse and abortion through the veil of humor (see Dundes 1979; Sutton-Smith 1960). In other cases, I have offered possible symbolic meanings for references in the songs (e.g., “My Little Organ Grinder (Rio Rio),” no. 65 in this volume) and social historical information as context (e.g., the Filipino references in “Bolo’d,” no. 60 in this volume).  As in the past volume, I indicate my corrections of, or questions about, his transcription of lyrics by placing text within brackets.


The two volumes in which Eskin’s collection has been presented raises a methodological issue about the value of annotation in folkloristic practice. Although I recognize that some folklorists associate annotation with an older historic-geographic methodology, my view is that in modern folkloristics the annotation can open for view perspectives on matters of social process and traditionality of crucial importance in the analysis of the material with which folklorists work. In my annotations, I give conventional attention to origin and diffusion of traditions in addition to matters of variance in folk process. I also note indexing information where available to advance comparative studies of folk song. What I have added frequently is information about the interplay of this material with popular culture and interpretative comments on the performers’ motivations and the symbolic meanings of songs that help explain their function, persistence, and in many cases, disappearance. I have made a case prior to this project that annnotation is a distinctive folkloristic tool in need of continued development, especially to comparative cultural endeavors (Bronner 2006; Bronner 2011, 89-91; see also Oring 1989). The annotation also frequently has as its driving mission to provide insights into processes of oikotypification, hybridization, practice (i.e., the question of why people repeat themselves), social context, and structure (including symbolic and cognitive structures). The Eskin project has convinced me  that much work still needs to be done with collections among folklorists that like Vance Randolph’s were once considered “unprintable” or like Eskin’s were not made publicly available.  Not just a matter of adding texts to our corpus of folkloristic knowledge, their work in the field, once analyzed, contributes immensely to our understanding of the dynamics of tradition.
Eskin with guitar Smithsonian
References Cited
Bronner, Simon J. 2006. “Folklorists.” In Encyclopedia of American Folklife, ed. Simon   J. Bronner, 422-26. Armonk, NY: M. E. Sharpe.

Bronner, Simon J. 2011. Explaining Traditions: Folk Behavior in Modern Culture. Lexington: University  Press  of Kentucky.

Dundes, Alan. 1979. “The Dead Baby Joke Cycle.” Western Folklore 33: 145-57.

Oring, Elliott. 1989. “Documenting Folklore: The Annotation.” In Folk Groups and Folklore Genres: A  Reader,  ed. Elliott Oring, 358-73. Logan: Utah State University Press.

Randolph, Vance. 1992. Roll Me In Your Arms: “Unprintable” Ozark Folksongs and Folklore, Volume I–Folksongs and Music, ed. G. Legman. Fayetteville: University of Arkansas Press.

Sutton-Smith, Brian. 1960.  “‘Shut Up and Keep Digging’: The Cruel Joke Series.” Midwest Folklore 10: 11-22.


Daniel Walden and the Jewish Subject in American Studies

Simon J. Bronner, Ph.D.

Distinguished Professor of American Studies and Folklore

The Pennsylvania State University, Harrisburg


Delivered at the Northeast Modern Language Association meeting, Harrisburg, PA, April 3-5, 2014; Roundtable– “American Jewish Literature: Retrospective and Prospective,” Simon J. Bronner, chair.


This roundtable was originally intended to be a conversation with Daniel Walden, a former president of the Northeast MLA and my Penn State colleague and friend who through his 80s was very much active in scholarship and teaching. He was the oldest professor to teach at Penn State as of fall 2013, with courses on ethnic literature, Jewish literature, and Holocaust literature. He was still productive after turning 91 on August 1; Penn State Press published Chaim Potok: Confronting Modernity Through the Lens of Tradition (2013), which he edited. He showed no signs of slowing down when we first discussed the NeMLA roundtable, and in fact,  I worked with him on what would turn out to be his last publication, an entry on Saul Bellow for the Encyclopedia of American Studies. He was excited about the idea of returning to NeMLA and sharing his thoughts on the past and future of American Jewish literary studies.  He went into the hospital in October 2013 for what he thought would be a short stint to attend to his kidney function, but he developed pneumonia and other complications, and he passed away November 8, 2013. If he had been here, I would have engaged him to discuss his view of American Jewish literature with which he had been intimately involved as critic, editor, and promoter since the 1950s. I hoped to do this as his younger colleague who regularly interacted with him since 1981; our paths regularly crossed as professors  involved in American Studies and Jewish Studies, which incidentally he established at Penn State. I know a conversation with him would have been a grand exchange, not only because of his lively personality and broad-mindedness, but also because he is undoubtedly a major figure in the study of American literature generally. He was founding editor in 1975 of Studies in American Jewish Literature, continuing his leadership for a remarkable 36-year stretch to 2011, and one of the founders of MELUS. He was editor of a landmark anthology of 1974, On Being Jewish: American Jewish Writers from Cahan to Bellow and co-editor in 1969 of On Being Black: Writings by Afro-Americans from Frederick Douglass to the Present.  In 1984, he produced an important reference work Twentieth Century American Jewish Fiction Writers for Greenwood, which established a canon of modern Jewish American fiction.  On the occasion of his 90th birthday, in 2012 Studies in American Jewish Literature issued a festschrift for him edited by Alan Berger and the American Literature Association’s 2013 Jewish American and Holocaust Literature Symposium was devoted to his work.

Biographies and interviews of him have already been published and I don’t want to turn this roundtable into a memorial service, although we all honor him with our continued work in American Jewish studies. Applying the Jewish adage of “May his memory be a blessing,” my purpose is to review the field of American Jewish literary studies that he helped formulate during the 1960s and 1970s, and to look to the ways that this field evolved in the twenty-first century.  I am hardly the first to note the work of Walden and his cohort in Jewish literary studies but what I will propose that an overlooked bridge he built between pre-Millennium and post-Millennium scholars was his adoption of American Studies as a guiding framework for analysis.  I want to consider this framework’s relevance as we move past what I consider a crossroads moment in Jewish cultural studies.

During the 1960s, Walden reflected, Jewish American writers were celebrated for their Jewishness in a period of ethnic awareness.  In Walden’s words, “When Arthur Miller, Saul Bellow, Jo Sinclair, and Laura Z. Hobson introduced the uniquely Jewish experience to the reading public, the culture was ready for their insights .” Of importance to Walden, these writers “searched the American experience from a Jewish point of view” and presented themselves as Jewish writers.  Their  entrance into the mainstream and their themes of assimilation separated them from an earlier immigrant generation of writings who wrote of a Jewish ghetto milieu and a search for authenticity, often in religion. The likes of Roth and Malamud in addition to the writers he previously mentioned, Walden opined, showed “how far Jews have moved from the Covenant.”  For him, Bellow, Malamud, and Roth set the standard of American Jewish writing come of age. The worry was that they also marked a height from which writing has been in decline ever since.  He fretted over pronouncements during the late 1970s by fellow Jewish critics Leslie Fiedler and Irving Howe that as a genre the “American Jewish novel” was dead.  Without the drama of immigration and the ghetto, after all, they argued, Jewish writing lost its steam.

With his sociohistorical perspective gained from the rising field of American Studies, he argued that the issue was not of genre, of such great concern to literary scholars, but of context out of which literary expression was used to capture and interpret experience. He predicted an era of change to the end of the twentieth century characterized by “a talented group,”  as he described them, including Cynthia Ozick, Norma Rosen, Hugh Nissenson, Dan Wakefield, and “perhaps,” he grudgingly wrote, Woody Allen and Neil Simon.  Whereas other critics saw in them great differences that defied continuity, Walden declared that individuality of imagination characterized them. They deal with American Jewish experience in individual ways, he wrote.  American Studies at the time was making the case that imaginative literature was not just a reflection of experience, but also affected public action. The images created in literature fused symbols and images into an emotional construct that was on the level of myth. For Walden, if the American Jewish novel was dead, you might as well say kaddish for American Jewish identity and he was not ready from a personal and scholarly perspective to do so, or relegate Jewishness to the Yiddishkeit of the Lower East Side.

Above all in the era of change, Walden was captivated by Chaim Potok (1929-2002), who dealt more with the Covenant and orthodoxy than the others who he had described as moving away from religious themes. Yet Potok’s characters, Walden excitedly proclaimed, were  Zwischenmenschen–that is, “between persons” who felt agency to mold rather than inherit identity in the open culture of America.  Adding a psychological thread in novels of the period, Potok, Walden thought, came to the forefront of writing about the tension between religion and secularism, tradition and modernity. Potok was a scholar who interpreted his own works, rather than let literary critics provide that service, but Walden’s key role was to extend Potok as a barometer of not just the Jews as Jews, but of American culture and Jews as Americans. Walden  after the ethnic focus of On Being Jewish used Potok to provide comparisons to themes of identity and agency, and double consciousness, among African Americans and Chicanos.

Walden’s guiding hand in Studies in American Jewish Literature pushed critics and literary historians to consider Jewish writing as forms of identity formation out of the complex relations of public and private life evident in terms such as mainstream, metropolitan, and popular.  He moved interpretation of literature from the immigrant experience to the imaginaries of heritage, including public memory of Holocaust, Israel, and prejudice.  With globalization and transnationalism all the rage in the twenty-first century, there emerged a new challenge to the categorization of American in Jewish literature as being exclusive or even irrelevant.  In recent conversations, he still held fast to the importance of the idea of America in writing on the Jewish subject. He especially pointed to  trends on a spate of writing concerning new Russian immigrants in American Jewish literature and pointed particularly to Andy Furman’s idea of Russification of Jewish American literature. Indicative of his canonical thinking, he sought to identify the best of this lot and wanted to feature authors of Russian Jewish background.

Yet he did not see past the traditional frame of the book in defining literature. My perspective moving past Studies in American Jewish Literature to Jewish Cultural Studies is the decentering and decanonization of the text in the digital era.  In Jewish Cultural Studies expressions varied as blogs by orthodox women, folk narratives as legends and jokes, and composed scripts for rituals such Simhat Bat and Yom Hashoah count as literature.  Further, the Jewish subject rather than the Jewish writer is in the scope of American Jewish literature, particularly with Jewishness as an appropriated image and identity, evident in complex issues of conversion and Jewish symbolism such as Mona in the Promised Land by Gish Jen (1997) set in suburbia, where the Chinese protagonist who was raised Buddhist is a Jew “by choice” amidst ambivalent “authentic Jews” and  her Christian African-American best friend.  In such works the representation of Jewishness, rather than the experience of Jews, comes to the fore, and there is every sign that this concern is evident as part of a larger theme of a new era of change characterized by depictions of  overlapping, interethnic, and alternative identity explorations within a fragmenting America.  But often it is not Jews doing the explorations.

To be provocative and raise discussion here, I will propose that the prospect for American Jewish literature  is to redefine itself  culturally much as American Studies has. Still there is the question of the American context or frame, especially for a group as mobile as Jews, but the point of the American frame rather than the American community is that it is often constructed by participants with varying degrees of connection to a Jewish past. Along with this interest in the Jewish subject as trope, with different judgments of its coolness by Jews and non-Jews and those in-between, is a rediscovery of uncovered vernacular texts from history analyzed, often multilingually and multivocally, for their rhetorical strategies such as the eye-catching insertion of “A Scattering of Contemporary and Perennial Jokes” in Norton’s Anthology Jewish American Literature (2001). I think Dan Walden would allow, even encourage, critical concern forty years after his On Being Jewish under a heading of On Using Jewish themes of appropriation of Jewishness and a decentered text with the symbolic Jewish subject.


Football First: The Discourse of Culture and Athletics in the Jerry Sandusky Scandal at Penn State


Simon J. Bronner


Paper delivered at the American Studies Association annual meeting, Washington, D.C., November 2013, Panel: “Penalties, Sanctions, and Fines: Discourses of American Sports Gone Afoul”


I know what you’re thinking. After millions of words spewed in print, radio, television, and the Internet about the Jerry Sandusky sports scandal that the Associated Press picked as the top sports story two years running (2011, 2012), what more is there possibly to say? Or do we need to say it, even if there was? The story has many facets and no matter how you cut it, the details are disturbing. It centers on the actions of former university football assistant coach Jerry Sandusky’s sexual assault of at least eight underage boys on or near university property and the alleged response, or lack of response, by university officials to prevent the story from getting out and even enabling Sandusky to continue his abuse over a fifteen-year period (1994-2009; in 2002 the university banned Sandusky from bringing children onto the Penn State campus but failed to make a report to police or to any child protection agency). University president Graham Spanier, athletic director Tim Curley, and legendary football coach Joe Paterno lost their jobs in the wake of the revelations. Students massed in support of Paterno, but amid allegations of succumbing to the will of the coach, the university removed a venerated statue of him in front of Beaver Stadium.  Of relevance to American Studies, literary scholar Michael B�rub� resigned the Paterno Family Professorship, but wrote an op-ed in the Chronicle of Higher Education to declare, public opinion notwithstanding, that Penn State’s football program did not corrupt the university’s academic mission. Even before the trial that resulted in a conviction of Sandusky occurred, the NCAA, based upon a report commissioned by the Penn State board of trustees and led by former FBI director Louis Freeh, imposed severe sanctions including sixty million dollars in fines, a four-year post-season ban, and vacating of wins going back to 1998. While no one questioned the horror of the abuse, there were objections that the NCAA overstepped its bounds in a criminal case, or at least that its president Mark Emmert exerted strongarm tactics in deliberations that sidestepped the organization’s usual procedures. The organization allowed Emmert to determine the punishments, did not enter into investigations of its own, and  refused to hear any appeals.

Acknowledging the enormity of the discourse from the sports section to the front news page is not to say that key themes cannot be discerned. Much of that discourse has concerned the general problem of child sexual abuse in America, the role of big time sports in driving the mission of higher education, and the privileging, even worship, of football on college campuses. Related to this last point is the challenge to the NCAA’s monopolistic management of big-time sports, because at the time the NCAA was being rocked by criticism of various policies including its commercial exploitation of players, handling of recruiting violations, and botched investigation of the University of Miami program.  Secondarily, there is the question of the taint on Penn State’s good name, once known for being a squeaky clean program, even at times acting holier than thou, or holier than corruptible programs further south that sacrifice academics for sports success. The Sandusky scandal remained headline news for the better part of the last three years. Consider that AP’s designation of the Sandusky scandal as the number one issue was the first time a story was selected twice in a row since the AP began conducting its annual vote in 1990 and it looks as if the story will linger for years to come with trials of Penn State administrators yet to be heard, massive monetary settlements by Penn State with Sandusky’s victims, more appeals for a new trial by Sandusky’s lawyers, an investigation of the Attorney General’s handling of the case, a libel case against former FBI director Louis Freeh by former university president Graham Spanier, and active lawsuits against the NCAA by the Paterno family, trustees, and former players for its sanctions against the University. Arguably, the story has shifted with time from the issue of child abuse to the role of big-time college sports in American education and political economy.

Even these issues, I contend, are undergirded by the contested question of “culture,” and an examination of its use in the discourse can help explain the impact of the story in American consciousness.  Although not as conspicuous as other issues, I claim that the rhetoric of culture is fundamental to the way that sports are conceptualized in American worldview. As American Studies scholars lean toward rhetorical and symbolic analysis to discern the “big picture” and the hidden “crux of the matter,” I analyze the use, or misuse, of “culture” as a keyword in the Sandusky scandal to assess what the scandal reveals about attitudes toward sports, universities, and the importance of winning in American society.

To be sure, the immediate and “most significant” cause of administrators’ failure to halt Sandusky’s assaults, the Freeh Report concluded, was “The avoidance of the consequences of bad publicity” for the university (16). It found, however, contextual reasons that created a problem at Penn State. Most of these were structural such as problems with the oversight of the Board of Trustees, ignorance of Clery Act regulations, and the governance style of the President. The last bulleted point, however, was the most general and arguably the most explosive: “A culture of reverence for the football program that is ingrained at all levels of the campus community” (17). Indeed, in making recommendations for remediation, the report place “The Penn State Culture” first. It noted that transformation of the culture is one of the most challenging tasks, although it did not give its criteria for culture beyond suggesting that it constituted a “weakness” and calling upon the university to conduct a “thorough and honest review” of itself (17).  In fact, most of the corrective recommendations for changing the culture were administrative, but the report cited a “community culture” that places an “over-emphasis on ‘The Penn State Way’ as an approach to decision-making, a resistance to seeking outside perspectives,” and probably its most important point, “an excessive focus on athletics that can, if not recognized, negatively impact the University’s reputation as a progressive institution” (129). The statement suggested that participation in or support for sports was either reactionary or countered the academic mission of the university. The report also implied that athletics corrupted the values of community members because it called on the University administration to “create a values- and ethics-centered community” (129). Editorials reacted negatively to this accusation because of the implication that every student, staff, and faculty member was culpable in the continuation of child sex abuse. Most community members preferred to view it as bad decision making by a few individuals and the crimes the actions of a sick, predatory person. In criticism of this part of the report, Berube and others pointed out that the only evidence for the cultural statement was an interview with a janitor who expressed fear of repercussions for reporting what he saw to administrators.

Although the few lines on culture in the Freeh Report was probably the vaguest part of the investigation, NCAA President Mark Emmert brought what he called a “football first culture” to the forefront. In his public statement explaining sanctions against the university he highlighted the need to “ensure Penn State will rebuild an athletic culture that went horribly awry. Our goal is not to just be punitive, but to make sure the University establishes an athletic culture and daily mindset in which football will never again be placed ahead of educating, nurturing, and protecting young people” (NCAA 2012). In a separate statement Emmert stated “Recent incidents have made it clear that Penn State refuses to fix its football-first culture. We need to send a clear message that academics must become more of a priority. Therefore, we have forced to intervene to make sure Penn State will begin to focus on the welfare of not only its student-athletes, but its entire student body and surrounding community.”  Although the priority of academics had never been at issue in the criminal case, and certainly no ethnographies had been undertaken or cited of campus culture, Emmert’s spin was that the problems of Penn State’s ethics were a function of football’s role in regional culture. The accusation sent reporters reeling because this was the same program that Emmert’s predecessor Myles Brand called “the poster child for doing it right in college sports” (Fish and O’Neil 2013). Critics speculated whether Emmert was in fact projecting his own problems at the University of Washington and LSU, two schools he previously led, rather than Penn State, about which he had little personal experience.

When Emmert announced in September 2013 a change in sanctions against Penn State for the number of scholarships allowed, he was asked directly if he still thought that Penn State had a culture problem. He acknowledged Penn State’s efforts to improve the “culture of sports on campus” and  looked to former Senator George Mitchell who serves as the Independent Athletics Integrity Monitor for Penn State who answered, “Penn State has undertaken a major effort on the issue of culture,” although he hedged a bit by stating “The word culture means different things to different people and it can be a subjective part of the response remaining is to see what they do in following up on this” (Snyder 2013). Indeed, Mitchell claimed that the culture had yet to be defined, although he praised the university’s provision of a “broad base of data and a wide-spread approach to the issue of culture” (Snyder 2013). Undoubtedly what he was referring to was a survey of culture supervised by the university’s Ethics Resource Center and sent to all Penn State employees and students in October 2013 (the results were supposed to be made public in spring 2014). The 26-page survey included a single question about the role of football at the university. More typical were ratings of statements as important or not important such as “We accept the consequences of our actions,” “We act out of concern for the well being of others,” “We come together to achieve a common purpose.” It did not ask questions about expressive communicative practices that most folklorists and anthropologists associate with culture. Culture in the survey and the Freeh Report appeared to be about morality.

The Freeh Report’s leap from a janitor’s statement to campus culture came under attack in a rebuttal titled “Rush to Injustice” written by the law firm of King & Spalding. It asserted that crimes were missed not because “of the culture of football, or fear of bad press, or indifference to the safety of children, but because of ignorance regarding ‘acquaintance offenders'” (King & Spalding 2013, 30). King & Spalding’s report agreed that there was a “culture of reverence” for the football program, but claimed that this was actually a positive trait: “The fact that . . . Penn State football [is] one of the most successful, academically oriented college football programs in the country should and rightly did command a culture of reverence within the university and within college football in general” (King & Spalding 2013, 54). Rather than blame the “culture of college football,” the report called for accountability of “all who refuse to speak openly about child sexual victimization and on our ignorance of the ways offenders actually disguise their offending behavior.” The “Rush to Injustice” report tried to move the discourse back to the societal problem of child abuse and implied that the NCAA victimized Penn State for a problem it could not solve.

Michael B�rub� in his Chronicle op-ed even suggested that the result of the Freeh Report and NCAA statements was to increase the visibility of football culture. In his words, “They have made the Sandusky scandal all about football again. Not about the failures of local law enforcement and the closed shop of university administration. About the football team. Walk or drive around town and you’ll see signs everywhere: Proud to Support Penn State Football” (B�rub� 2012). There is some truth to his claim that the perception in central Pennsylvania is that the NCAA victimized Penn State football rather than deal with the problem of child sex abuse. Indeed, one can hear the comment that unable to curb child abuse, or its own mismanagement, the NCAA lowered the boom on the football team that had nothing to do with the crimes. There is no denying, however, that football is important to the campus and the region. For decades, football with its connection to the ownership of the land and autumn harvest in an isolated, mostly rural environ has represented the grit and viability of residents whose political economy no longer seemed to matter (see Bronner 2011; Paolantonio 2008). Emasculated as an industrial power, Penn State could claim to be the manly “Beast of the East” and take the moral high ground of an academically oriented campus and a tight-knit community where uniforms do not carry individual names and its coach spurned lucrative offers from the big leagues to stay in Happy Valley. Another feature is the school’s representation of a region between North and South, because it is in Centre County, situated smack in the middle of the state.

Two questions remain in the debate over the role of football culture on Penn State’s campus and others throughout the country. A primary one is the identification of “football first” culture that the NCAA found broadly, if vaguely objectionable, and the second is why it and the Freeh Report attributed causative influence to it.  To hear Emmert and Freeh talk, “football first” means that sports dominate campus life that should be about academics, and football, the largest of the team sports, and one associated with a kind of aggression and hierarchy that seems out of step with a egalitarian, feminizing society, epitomizes resistance to social and moral progress and the advancement of a civil, safe society. The NCAA’s frustration with curbing child abuse and the stigma of male homosexuality within its football midst, one that for long has been suspected of harboring homoerotic and predatory behaviors (Dundes 1978), resulted in exorbitant fines for four years. The dollar figure (four x 15, or the structure of a football game) and number of years (four) are in themselves reflections of an American cultural symbolism of four as a quantity of abundance (see Brandes 1985).  Freeh and Emmert attributed the cultural environment external to football as a cause, I maintain, because it deflected attention away from internal behavioral issues within the sport in the context of a contrary domesticating value system. In the absence of evidence that academics suffered because of football, they created a zero-sum game harking back to the aesthetic-athletic divide of the nineteenth century in which social critics believed that physical activity took away from intellectual pursuits and encouraged juvenile delinquency (Bronner 2012, 215-29).

The other sanctions and mostly negative responses to them suggest an overarching cultural expression of belief in the value of winning. Simply stated, the sanctions were designed to have Penn State lose. If Penn State fell from its pinnacle, the thinking went, then football and its values would no longer be popular, and predominant, on campus. Penn State has been losing more than it is used to, but it still retains the loyalty of fans, and surprisingly to the pundits, the interest of top athletes. The last two seasons, Penn State community members have pointed to its winning record despite the sanctions as proof of the school’s righteousness. “Football first” is not so much the issue of putting academics first or protecting children on campus, and certainly not a cause of abuse, as is the need to have a “victory culture” which extends to a number of major sports (Bronner 2011, 380-82). In the vague political economy of universities that eschews capitalistic corporate exploitation in favor of a medieval pastoral ideal, but nonetheless values luxuries gained by profits, the coinage is victories on the field and rankings in the media. Universities enter into a form of reputation management whereby insuring sports success is critical to the sustainability of community and a distinctive corporate identity. Outside of Penn State as mega-universities become more the norm in higher education, and institutional life they represent replace community bonds across their regions, maintaining the victory culture has put strains on resources, and indeed could affect the ethical decisions that administrators and coaches make. In conclusion, football is not the root of evils on campus, although the belief that it is points to cultural conflicts about social hierarchy and dominance within American mass society.






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